Thursday, August 27, 2020

Fisher King of Staten Island

I always wish there was more writing that was analysis of movies, and less reviews. You can go anywhere to find someone to tell you whether to see the movie, what the actors and directors said about it in an interview, and whether it is funny/well paced/too long or whatever. They'll even give a platitudinal description of what it means.

But it's much rarer to find analysis that talks through a scene or filmic techniques used. Especially not if any of it is from the back half of the film and thus intrudes on dread "spoilers."

It's one thing to admit that newspapers and other first-line media are really just selling a complement to advertising and helping people to decide what to see. But why is the fucking Atlantic limiting themselves to such banalities. Are people really reading a thousand word piece in essay-periodicals to see where to take their date to this weekend? [Anachronism for when people "went out" to movies.]

For the love of god, at least discuss the desire to be a "tattoo artist" as a dream that involves the ability to leave permanent marks on people.

Anyway, as a review, this one by the Atlantic for Judd Apatow's and Pete Dickinson's "The King of Staten Island" is fine. Nothing offensively wrong about it at least.

I did want to talk about two scenes that particularly struck me for their metaphorical power.

Early on, Scott's under-the-table girlfriend is talking with their group of friends about her professional goals. She wants to work in city planning and turn Staten Island into a hipper part of New York - the nxt Brooklyn.

The movie is King of Staten Island. The main character is Staten Island - awkward and a failure but with the undeniable heart of someone incapable of selling out. The reactions here are really about Scott.

Scott: Staten Island (me) sucks and nothing will fix it.

Scott's Stoner Friends: Staten Island is fine and should never change.

Scott's Love Interest: Staten Island is cool but I just want to help fix it up so more people appreciate it like I do.


My favorite scene is the surreal bit just before the end. Scott is alone at the fire station and a large, dirty man wanders in, with blood visibly coming through his shirt. You have to understand that this man out of nowhere is Scott - he is the childish baggage holding Scott back.

The man acknowledges he has a wound, but downplays it as something not worth getting official attention. He makes up three dumb excuses, before being pressured into admitting that it was a gunshot or stab. But he doesn't want cops involved and wants this random kid to just stitch him back together (he says Scott must have a needle and thread, a reference to his failed career as a tattoo artist.)

Scott says he can't help because he's high. The stranger says he is high too.

Scott carries the guy to the hospital, and the stranger offers to switch identities with him. Scott can only get him to actual medical attention once he gets help from Ray (his surrogate father) and his mother who randomly show up.

"Tell my father I hate him and I love him and I forgive him. Tell my sister I know she's my mother."

It's hilarious because of the absurdity of it, but also a good fantasy for the "person with depression finally seeks help in a serious way" that ends most of these movies.

Edit: Title changed after I realized a better pun.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

More Umbrellas


Just finished the Umbrella Academy Season 2. The series has never had the artistic heights of the Boys or Punisher, but if you liked Season 1 you should like this one as well. It is of course about family, and rather than reviewing all 8 hours, I'm just going to point out a couple of ways it dealt with this theme.

(All of these are fairly obvious, don't @ me for lack of originality. I just thought they should be written down at least.)

The biggest is the structure of the season. I was not looking forward to this sequel season (and took a while to watch it) out of fear of this. The strength of this show is the characters, their dysfunctions, and the enabling environments they have built their lives in. Family entanglements and metaplot pull them out of those environments, which is a fun arc to watch, but as a group they are painted far less well than each of their individual worlds.

Like many of the underplanned televised series, it looked like their second season could not replicate that. Characters would just be caught up full time in the metaplot - especially as they all ended the season by jumping into a time portal together into the sixties. Why do we the audience care about whatever built-from-scratch metaplot stuff in the sixties they will deal with?

Turns out their answer was pretty good! The siblings get deposited separately over the course of years throughout the sixties, cut off from each other, and having a long time to wait before reuniting. This allowed them to find and build new lives that represent where they are psychologically. Join the Civil Rights movement. Forget everything and live on a farm. Work for a boss that values you. Get married. Start a cult. These lives were meaningful because they made sense as what each character would create, and they had to be extracted from again to get the metaplot and family unity on the road. This way Season 2 replicated the same arcs as the first.


The most interesting and surprising bit was "the Swedes." Of course they were boring. That was the point and the way they could surprise you.

Season 1 of course had Hazel and Cha-Cha. Colorful, fun, humanized characters as the MIB instead of faceless mooks. A good subversion but it also took over the season. They and their problems were interesting enough that we spent more and more time on them, instead of the original characters. Any show sufficiently committed to humanism starts to develop this character bloat, of course, and I wouldn't want Season 1 without it. But a whole new set of assassins to have their character development and conflict every season becomes a labor instead of a surprise.

Instead we see something inhuman and ignorable, in S2E1 when these three mute, albino, nordic brothers just start shooting everything they see to get at the family. They can exist as this threat that moves things along, and be mowed down by the end, without complicating the plot further. Good job.

Except it's not as easy as that. First one of them is killed by a booby trap. And we see a brief shot of the two others giving him a viking funeral. It's sad and sweet but still weird and distant, like finding out elephants have a graveyard for their own. "Oh neat, animals do this human-like thing too." 

In the penultimate episode, they take their twist. The two Swedes attack Allison, who mind controls one into killing the other in self-defense. Watching the one choke out his only remaining human connection was shot intensely.

Later we see the last remaining Swede alone in his safe house. Not plotting yet more blood revenge against the protagonist. But looking at a childhood photo of him and his lost brothers. Remembering his forced fratricide. Staring at his hand. And raising an axe to chop it off. He is filled with so much pain and loathing over what he did when under mind control that he is going to chop his own hand off!

This did not take a lot of screen time, and in fact it all had zero dialogue. But this silent arc took them from faceless threats to something with human pain and loss. We can still see the love in the inhuman, much like in "I Am Legend."

Because of this development, he earns the final resolution where instead of killing or being killed by the Umbrella Academy, they can understand each other to say "Enough," and stop the revenge.


On a very minor note, I had to laugh at one small joke.

It's a rule of this blog that whenever a media work makes reference to some work of art or otherwise plot-insignificant work, what they choose to reference is a direct window into the themes the auteur is addressing. Again, see I Am Legend (or how I criticized Parasite for failing this.)

Our-Five tells his past-self they made a typo in their calculations for traveling through time. What was the typo? A decimal point misplacement.

"Instead of 5.7, it was 0.57"

Instead of Five being separated from the Seven, Five is on the side of the Seven.

Small touch, but nice.

Monday, June 29, 2020

1917: The Game: The Movie

1917 (2019) Film Poster.jpeg

1917 is very very weird. Not because it is a movie about the horrors of war. I respect that theme, but we have many of those, and 1917 certainly is not the best of them. Depicting both the scale of the carnage of World Wars and the personal level of each individual atrocity are often diametric goals, and 1917 doesn't break new ground at either of those ends. It's good if you just want *more* of that, but not unique.

What makes it unique is, well... it's not a movie.

There is a certain type of videogame that's become increasingly popular, that never provides a gap in the story flow. Cinematics are all done with the game engine. You don't end one level with a boss and portal or helicopter and then start a new one in a different zone with a "Welcome to Green Hills Zone 1" sign, but rather you continuously flow from one room to the next with smooth transitions, so that it all feels like one uninterrupted ride on a lazy river. Black Ops, Brothers, Journey, Inside are all examples. (Yes these sometimes have loading screens, but you are meant to feel that your character did not skip over anything. Open World games could be like this, but it's single player games that can manage the linear on-rails aspect of this story.) They're also slightly surreal, as you see a world change radically and develop in your 120 minute session of sitting in front of the screen with no time skips.

These stories make somewhat more sense for the videogame format, as after all you are inhabiting one person and so just sticking with their point of view is more "realistic." It doesn't feel real to play, just because that's not how we are used to stories by this point, but it does feel hypnotically surreal and is kind of its own genre at this point.

1917 is just one of those games. There's not interactivity, but the story flows much, much more like Black Ops or Inside than any other movie. There's an obvious comparison to classics like Before Sunset which also do the "one continuous take on two characters" type of story, but for those the dialogue and the relationship between the characters is the focus. Whereas for 1917, and the videogames, the *environment* is the focus. We're using this third-person-limited view to explore several epic scene-pieces, and the awe as you slowly come upon them.

1917 does this very, very well. To use the word "beautiful" is an understatement. It's like if the grandest fantasy saga videogame that is drunk on using its new level of graphics to depict every tree and broad horizon, was advanced thirty years. That's what this movie looks like: the storymode of a videogame from thirty years in the future, showing you the beauty and horror of a countryside in the middle of war.

(The plot doesn't help either. Since it wants to talk about a global scale war, but also how one soldier on one mission can make a difference. And you have colorful NPC's who pop up for three minutes to advance your quests, say a couple memorable lines, and then never appear again.)

You should absolutely watch it for the aesthetic experience (on as large a screen as you can manage.) You should also play Journey, for pretty much the same reasons. Those two experiences will be much more similar than comparing it to any other movie.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Review: The Unreality of 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' - The ...
I thought it was actually Billy Flynn, and am amused that whenever I typed that in a search it still showed me the correct movie.

Not a ton to add to this movie, but I will say some things. I've been watching the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary, and recently read Redeployment, so "soldiers returning home from an unpopular war and having trouble fitting in" is a recent theme.

To anyone familiar with that genre, this does not cover a lot of new ground. "Soldiers used to watching a marketplace for any sudden movement, or to being in a firefight, will suffer bad reactions to a fireworks display at a football halftime show! Conservative viewpoint represented: our soldiers are doing their best and deserve our support and civilians can't imagine the things they do. Liberal viewpoint represented: it really is a hopeless war and many elites who attach themselves to The Troops are as bad as any hippie who throw insults at them." Etc etc.

I do appreciate how... pathetic everything is. They aren't at the Superbowl. They're at a NFL game of a football team that never even makes the playoffs. They can't get their movie sold, but are surrounded by Hollywood agents trying to and failing. It's a ritzy version of American decadence, but it's also a very hollow one.

Frankly the stars like Steve Martin, Astro, and Kristen Stewart feel out of place in this movie. Without them the other actors genuinely seem like "normal people out of their depth and trying to stay afloat." Joe Alwyn uh... really does seem like someone close to an emotional breakdown because he has no idea what he is doing. (Chris Tucker can stay, because uh, Hollywood C-list is the point of that guy.)

Vin Diesel is great because the problem of so many movies about a squad with a fallen comrade is that they are just a faceless memory or a number. Oh yeah, some people died, that is sad, but it's just a narrative trope and statistic. But with someone of his star power and charisma, you really *feel* the hole of his absence in the timeline without him. Where is Vin? We are different and lesser without Vin. It doesn't come close to the magnitude of the loss of a comrade, but it is the *direction* of that loss.

Now, the only thing anyone seems to have to say about the movie is the filming speed. Ang Lee experimented with 120 frames per second for recording this, and that was near universally panned. Easy to dismiss as both a failure, and irrelevant to the message. I certainly doubted Ang Lee intended this result.

The high frame rate used in the film drew some criticism, especially the decision to use it in a drama film. David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter said "the technical innovations took me out of the drama just as often as they pulled me in." Dan Callahan for TheWrap felt that some of the characters were "so super-clear that they look like a cut-out with scissors from a glossy magazine" and said "the extra-clarity 3D in this Lee movie often looks weirdly like something shot on videotape in the 1980s."

And yet.

You see the irony don't you? In a movie full of mockery for patriotic citizens who want to know so much about "what was war like", but who flinch from the actual emotions of the veterans, it's hard not to think about our obsession with immersion. (See the Prometheus thread.) The consumer wants to be immersed in the "most realistic story" of the troops, but once they are given anything close to that, they walk off awkwardly. They didn't like what they got. They're the cheerleader saying "but how could we run away? You're going back to the front, right?"

That narrative uncanny valley is very much like the filming resolution. "No, wait, this is too good. It doesn't look as good as the crude fake. Go back."

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Kino's Journey Without Meaning

We all have this time to be going through the backlog of old media, which is how I watched Kino's Journey for the first time. The 2003 version. Others compare it to the 2017 version, often with the newer and prettier version not coming off well, but I haven't seen that and don't intend to, so I'll be ignoring that. There's also the manga. But I was pleased enough with this version, which seemed a lightning in a bottle I wouldn't expect to be replicated elsewhere, because it made some painful decisions in its portrayal.

Kino's Journey (2003) - AFA: Animation For Adults | Animation News ...

Let's talk about existentialism, a favorite topic of this blog already. At its simplest core, it is about one sentence: Existence precedes essence. This is in contrast to "essence precedes existence", which is the belief that things have meaning or purpose prior to their physical existence. The belief that the soul precedes the body, or that the destination precedes the journey. In opposite to that, Existentialism isn't exactly "life without meaning" but rather "life before meaning." You're here, now you gotta figure out why.

While not a feature of current existentialist media, originally it was also very austere and minimalist. Albert Camus is the best example of this, particularly his novel "The Stranger." The scene whose action determines the entire plot of the novel is just this:
“I knew that I had shattered the harmony of the day, the exceptional silence of a beach where I'd been happy. Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness. ”
Sure, an action happened. We don't know why (and neither does the murderer ever know.) We don't feel the visceral detail of it. We don't see the infinite tragedy of the human life that was lost, and the perpetrator hardly feels like a rich, complex human himself. A thing happened. That's all.

Elsewhere I have established the spectrum between Humanist art and Archetypical art from where art serves its narrative masters by filling in as many details and connections as possible, to where Archetypical art creates very simple, stark shapes of characters. This 60's era of existentialism made use of the Archetypical, though not all existentialism in the future did. (The Little Prince, is another classic Archetypical existentialist example.)

Kino's is an amazing throwback to this art/philosophical combination. We do not get thorough backstories of everyone, even of the main characters besides one point in their lives. The animation is simple and clear, without much ornamentation or details. When Kino visits a "country" we meet one or two people, and rarely see anyone else. These are not "real people" in the in depth, conflicted, rich sense. These are certainly not "real places" but much more like fairytale settings (and before any modernist has gotten their hands on them by exploring the economy and sociopolitical relations of such a setting.) You could almost say the anime itself is fairytale like, except the substance of what happens and what is said is anything but that.

The substance is Kino being a self-driven agent, and often arguing about that (or refusing to argue) with his snarky motorcycle or disbelieving townspeople. She's on a journey (though her gender is ambiguous for several episodes, serving as the ultimate null-identity.) To where? Who knows. Which direction should they take? Doesn't matter. (The very first scene is Kino and the motorcycle arguing over what journey means and why are they doing this. The motorcycle makes some good, if ill-tempered points. Kino doesn't care.)

The theme of freedom comes up a lot. Hardly surprising in a work about journeying, and that I am calling existentialist (birds and wide open skies are also commonly referenced imagery.) So just acknowledge we pointed it out and move on to more astonishing material.

I'd say the theme of "when to take a life" comes up next most often. Kino, despite looking like a child on a motorcycle, is a crack shot and athletic duelist, who carries a variety of lethal weapons. Kino basically is capable of killing anyone she is interacting with at any time, and can transition to doing that very suddenly. It is as if at all moments she contains the question "Should I kill this person?" even when no one else is asking this.

Which Kino devotes a lot of thought to. Kino never claims to be a pacifist, and gets herself into violent enough situations that you wouldn't believe her if she did (and kills several people by the end.) But she takes deciding whether to take a live very seriously and in particular resents anything trying to make her take one.

The second episode starts with her shooting a rabbit in the snow. She brings it to three stuck travelers who are starving. She contemplates with her motorcycle whether killing one rabbit to save three humans was a good choice. Obviously any of us would say that's a bargain, but she is distinctly uncomfortable that she inserted herself into the decision of who should live and die. Later the travelers betray her, badly enough that she is forced to kill them. She continues to angst - not because she killed three bad men, but because she had killed the rabbit to no benefit.

Every episode is like this. It's a meditation on "why we do things" that is not about the reasons behind our intertwined lives, but the choices in an open and cold field that we have no explanation for. I have grown tired of "twists" and dramatic reversals, but with Kino, every single episode had some change at the end that a) surprised me and b) was loyal to the existentialist themes.

The reveal in the episode about robots where the maid is a robot is not just that her human masters are robots too, but that the nanny was a human roboticist who made the masters and then pretended to be a robot just to hide from the trauma of her own life. Without a human to give them purpose, the real robots commit suicide.

In the final episode she goes to a land that is known to be hostile to travelers, but is actually being very generous to her. She promises to stay only her three days (which is her custom.) She is guided by a young girl who reminds Kino of herself. It's such a good time she decides to stay longer than usual. The town is up in arms over this, so Kino leaves, with gifts from a once again kind town. That night a volcano washes away the entire village. Kino finds a note in the gifts saying the town knew its end was coming, and just wanted to live life as they always had, and to be kinder to travelers so they would be remembered well. It's devastating to our usually stoic protagonist. And it is both a callback to a previous town that believed the end was coming due to a holy book of poetry they believed too much in, and to the episode where we see an older traveler wordlessly give his life for a young girl so she can have freedom, and that young girl becomes Kino. "What do you do in the face of death?" and "What could be worth dying for, not in the sense of Helping More People, but your own priorities" are classic existential questions.

One of my favorite things about the show is how often Kino is asked the same question, but gives different answers. Repetition is of course a common Archetypical tool, but Kino's insistence on not repeating herself says a lot about her.

One episode starts with Kino meeting a man repairing railroad tracks. He has been doing this for decades, because that was the job he was given, and he has never questioned whether he should stop. When asked her thoughts, Kino tells the story of a land where robots could do all the work, so the people created stressful jobs just to feel they deserved the rewards. Kino continues on and meets a second man, who is destroying the track, for as simple and bureaucratic reason as the first. He was told to, and never stopped, decades later. When asked her thoughts, Kino talks about the same land but from a different perspective. At last, Kino meets a man who is building a new track where the old one used to be. When asked her thoughts, Kino says it doesn't remind her of anything and just leaves. I cracked up. Kino refuses to spend her life repeating the same thing for no reason like these men.

The whole time, Kino is meeting these lands who have their deep and ingrained reasons for doing things the way they do (which are often bizarre to us.) This show is not a humanist description of "how amazing and different we all are," because frankly these lands are too absurd, and too minimalist, to evoke sympathy or understanding. The show is the Outsider marveling at these different ways, rarely passing judgment, and yet leaving everyone feeling judged when Kino leaves.

I really could relate every episode in such a short summary, both beautiful and stark, like a good joke. There's the episode where Kino is asked separately by a murderer and victim "what is your advice for travel?" and she gives them different advice "Don't get killed."/"Don't kill anyone." It's heart-breaking and also funny. And we don't take away an easy answer from it. The scene even had someone ask Kino "if you didn't want me to kill them, you could have stopped me", in a way very reminiscent of the existentalist classic Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen when arguing with Eddie Blake.

And of course, when Kino supports a local plucky girl inventor in her mission to make a flying machine, which beats everyone's doubts and actually flies, Kino expresses surprise. She never thought it would work. Her motorcycle asks "why did you help?" "I wanted to see what would happen." Kino was not acting as part of some heart-warming community tale, but rather as just someone who would sate their curiosity at the passive cost of human life.

Camus' Mersault shot an Arab because the afternoon was hot. We're appalled, but the existentialist fiction says that these reasons are no less "real" than the reasons that surround everything in our absurd culture. The Kino who joins a coliseum tournament claims no greater moral reason. We just do it.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Cognitive Hazards of Existential Risk

Amid the world-changing catastrophe and lockdown we are all experiencing now, people are wasting no time arguing about “who saw this coming and who took it seriously first.” Just today I read TUOC’s back and forth and Scott’s post about existential risk more broadly and those are among people I respect.

We could get lost in the weeds on the object level. My impression is that everyone “took this seriously” before some people they know/read, and after other people they know/read, and so your own impression of your success there is more about which group of people you choose to focus on. Myself, I was arguing to my boss that our office needs to act on this faster on March 3rd, which is well after some people, and well before many government officials. I don’t think it says much about me. Rationalist blogs took it seriously before Vox took it seriously before CNN took it seriously before the President, and every group’s villains take the opportunity to dunk on those later in the chain while their heroes lament.

So let’s talk about the meta level instead. Or why I think all the slamming on people for not seeing this coming is pointless and won’t benefit us in the long run anyway.

Rationalism, and many of its adjacent groups, prize very highly the trait of “taking ideas seriously.” This means talking about principles or threats not just in some “this may happen some day to other people” sense and a symbol to chatter about, but changing their own life based on the conclusions these ideas lead to. And in some ways, especially regarding your core ethical principles, I think this is very useful. 

But there seems very little discussion of the very good reason that most people don’t do this. Picture yourself as a politician, a leader of the country or at least your community. In the past few years you have been told by highly intelligent people that you respect about the following major problems that will explode any moment: global warming, AI expansion, EU breakdown and financial interdependence, terrorist attacks with nuclear or biological weapons, resource crisis, white nationalism, ebola, the breakdown of the middle class and/or nuclear family, social unrest and police brutality, and the end of late stage capitalism. All of these are very serious problems that very serious people tell you you need to act on NOW or society will end, and as far as you can tell, are equally convincing. 

You could expend all your credibility on the first one to cross your desk, and be forgotten in a week. And actually, many politicians do. We forget them. (Or they are like Marco Rubio, chasing forever after the latest big thing )

Successful politicians, ones who stick around, offer a Very Serious and Wide-Ranging Plan Addressing the Roots of this Crisis and Calling for Urgent Action, which often involves expert task forces and grants to some organizations, and then forget about it because nothing will happen on their plan and they know it. (In fact you can credit Joe Biden for doing this exact thing on January 27 ). This is the opposite of “taking ideas seriously.” This is showing attention to a problem for the sake of others’ judgment, without having to change your life or direct action much at all.

Economists have a pithy version of this attitude, as applied to people who try to short a company that they just KNOW is over-valued: “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” (And indeed, many investors who saw the 2008 financial crisis coming and tried to bet against it… bet in 2006 and 2007 and lost all their money first.)

You can’t just take every world-changing threat seriously at face-value and adjust your portfolio likewise. You will lose all your money, all your credibility, and have a broken shell of a life.

And most people, on a “meta-rational level”, actually know this? That you have to have some dissonance between your stated beliefs and how you guide your day to day existence, and that letting every change in the former affect your latter will throw you wildly off course. So they nod soberly at the new articles, maybe post online about it and use it as a reason to contribute $100 to their already favorite politician, maybe spend an equivalent amount on some consumer good that makes them feel prepared (gold against a financial crisis, prepping supplies, etc) and move on with their lives. And in most cases *this is very good for them.*

The problem being of course, that most cases are not all cases, and the one risk that proves out destroys all your hard work too.

The sort of competition-as-a-virtue ideology that the leading edge of our culture has now (from Wall St. to Silicon Valley) actually makes this worse. Even if you have an entirely accurate picture of future risk, if you have a competitor that just *ignores* or undervalues future risk, and doesn’t budget and plan for it, they can just beat you by price (or whatever.) Only entities that don’t have to worry about the short term can really prepare for future existential risk, and until now, our cultural ethos was very much against those sorts of entities, deriding them as traditional, monopolistic, and unaccountable (which they often were.)

The answer isn’t to just “ignore all future risks.” But it’s also really not to take a prideful stance of insisting *all* long-tail risks need to be treated with immediate seriousness. If you do this, you will find yourself very disappointed: as all your followers either ignore you, or lose all their money and sanity on the many other claims on their attention.

Unfortunately we actually need to analyze upcoming risks honestly. Most will never affect us. Some actually will. This is, well, incredibly hard. In particular a sense of proportion is very valuable here. (Rationalists like the linked SSC post will go on about the vital difference between .00001 and .01 chance, but frankly I think most people don’t react differently to .5 and .1 chance currently.) 

So let’s be honest about how people are actually coming to take this crisis seriously: it’s not because an expert presented them with a scary chart. People, especially top decision makers, are used to seeing scary charts. It is when the Real of the experience actually starts to hit them in the face. Almost every state put off any action until sick people were already in their state and multiplying by (if small) quickly increasing numbers.

You can’t even decide “well I will trust the experts in the field or this one particular expert I respect”, since well, the most common failure mode of experts is to vastly overstate the importance of their field.

There is an interesting side-tangent here of the difference between people who are “very online” and those not. For the past year the political internet had pondered this distinction, as twitter/etc discourse failed to resemble American voting outcomes so starkly, even among the Democratic primary voters. The implication was that by being “too online” we were stewing in so much self-referential memetic influences that we had lost touch with what “real people” thought, and so being very online was bad for your mental hygiene. In the past couple months, the lines of these categories persisted, but now it was the “very online” who were dramatically right about something relative to people just listening to talk radio and reading local papers.


(*Yes, this post uses the term “existential risk” for things that will just kill dozens of millions of people and raise unemployment to 20%, and not the technical meaning which would require the obliteration of all human life. Existential risk more commonly refers to “that would coerce drastic changes on you”, such as a neighboring army that can topple your government, without needing the whole complete extermination of humanity thing.)

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Let Them Dance

More people should watch the 1980’s spy/ballet thriller “White Nights” (despite the unfortunate name.) I don’t know why it’s not up in the ranks of perennial slumber party fare like “Dirty Dancing” and “Labyrinth” are.

It stars Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gregory Hines, and the first performance of Isabella Rossellini. 

Possibly because the plot is bad and any scene that does not involve dancing is bad. But fortunately most scenes involve dancing. Here’s the thing: I don’t even like watching dancing. Neither ballet nor tap (which are the specialties of the two leads.) But it’s clear that the director (Taylor Hackford) cares about it, and so that is the element that gets his attention.

The video above is just the opening credits of the movie. And Mikhail fortunately is a good actor whenever the matter is tangential to dancing. (Gregory and Isabella are of course always good actors.)

The plot itself works better was a “two people one room” scenario (ie what “Two Popes” wanted to be.) A star ballerino from Leningrad defected to the US for the twin reasons of sentimental conservatism (“I’m Russian, not Soviet”) and being able to earn more money. He crashes and is stuck back in Russia. The KGB sets as his minder a black tap dancer who defected from the US after the Vietnam War. They argue about their birth country’s respective history of oppression and how they treat different types of artists and class. They do this via dance sequences. It is moving and excellent.

It's not that the ballet (and tap and other) is just pretty fan service. It's that it is an effective way to tell the story, and worth appreciating in that right.

Notable scenes are: Hines tap dancing an explanation of structural racism in Harlem, Mikhail dancing the tragedy of suppressed artists and work under a politically restrictive regime, and the two of them doing a duet together that is very well coordinated and not in the preferred dance style of either of them.

Any rigmarole involving the straight from central casting KGB Colonel is cliche and predictable (except for the one scene where for no reason he dances by himself.) The scenes with American spymasters who want to get Mikhail out but are afraid to act are similarly pointless. But like, so what? Fast forward until you get to more dancing.

I particularly applauded how the director took the typical action-scenes of the spy escaping from his prison and doing death-defying hijinx and… made them look like ballet as well, leaping from I-beam to I-beam or performing aerial silk tricks on the rope.

The movie takes a very meta twist in the second half. To cover up what they are really talking about, to set their KGB minders at ease, and to extract some concessions, Mikhail and Gregory start arguing a lot about Isabella (who is playing Gregory’s wife and interpreter.) Mikhail is pretending to be racist and says it is disgusting for Isabella to be with a black man, and wants her for himself. They record a number of conversations to play for the eavesdroppers, all with the active participation of all three of them.

Except they get really, really into this performance. They record far more argumentative dialogue than is necessary. Mikhail and the Colonel exchange crude slurs (content warning: n-word.) It just goes on and on. And well, they are performers, and there is a lot to say about performers and the mask becoming real.

So my favorite moment, is while the tape of them having this derogatory argument in the background is playing, Mikhail and Isabella have crossed a rope to the fire escape, and Gregory is supposed to join them, but he instead just *throws away the rope* and goes downstairs to the KGB office to cover their escape. 

They do, in the end, choose to all go to America, instead of rejecting *both* oppressive regimes. Which is unfortunate but unsurprising.

Check it out from amazon, and fast forward through the non-dancing parts.